playing to win
September 14, 2022

Do you play to win or play to not lose as a leader?

By Ty Francis

Acting on our most recent reader survey results, we return to the topic of leadership development, including how to play to win. Specifically, how to avoid the twin pitfalls of being either too risk-averse (play not to lose) or too aggressive (play win-lose).

To help us explore this topic (which is related to mental toughness) I am delighted to welcome back guest blogger Ty Francis. Dr. Ty is a Gestalt coach, filmmaker & founder of meus. Regular readers will know that he has shared with us before on leadership development topics including systemic work, adaptive change & vision.

In this post, Ty shares a story about cows that has much to teach us about a winning attitude for leaders. So, over to Ty for another story to inspire our leadership development…

Leadership lessons from a cattle ranch

A long time ago on a cattle ranch far, far away – in Texas actually – some enterprising ranchers who couldn’t afford to put cattle grids down across all roads on the ranch, experimented with painting stripes on the road to resemble a cattle grid. They figured that cattle were not terribly bright. And they were right – the herd stayed within the perimeter, fooled by the false cattle grids. Other ranchers quickly realised the advantages, and very soon, these fake, painted “cattle grids” became all the rage in that part of the world. The cows – mostly an unchallenging lot – stayed within the range boundaries.

Then one day, many years later, some ranchers found a herd that had crossed the painted grid and were grazing on lush grass close to a river. They concluded that some cow had really examined the lines and finally understood they were just painted! Realising that she had been fenced in for many years by a ‘pretend’ cattle grid, she led the other cows to better pastures…

What made this cow successful was not courage or intelligence – it was simply that she had considered the real evidence, rather than relying on herd wisdom. Her examination of the evidence led her to realise that she and others had been fenced in for many years by false barriers. The “cattle grids” only existed in the minds of the herd!

What is your cattle grid?

The moral of this story relates to two extremely important things we need to examine more closely in any personal and organisational transformation process. We cannot change or grow without confronting Fear and Choice. Fear, after all, is only about “False Evidence Appearing Real”. The cow chose an adventure – to thrive in the pastures by the river. Thus she led the other cows in the herd, rather than settle for the comfort zone behind the painted lines of the false cattle grid.

Fear is really what holds us back. We are all afraid of suffering, and ultimately of death. This death is not the physical death of the body, but ego death. As young children growing up, we had bad experiences which led to particular kinds of suffering and we learned to adapt – to avoid those situations that might stress us, produce negative emotions or overwhelm us.

We all have very different and unique ways of avoiding stress and discomfort, but they ultimately coalesce into two strategies. There is a very particular language we use to identify these two life strategies: we learn to Play Not to Lose or we choose to Play to Win. The truth is that we all deploy both approaches. We can all identify times in our lives when we play not to lose and times when we play to win. The truly important issue is how conscious we are about our choices!

The trap of “Playing not to lose”

We choose this strategy because we believe our emotional survival is at stake. If we play not to lose, we are playing ‘the avoidance game’ – avoiding those situations where we might fail, be wrong, be rejected or be shamed. We let fear stop us and keep us safe and small, well-defended inside our comfort zones. We avoid risk. We measure ourselves against others and would rather no one wins than we lose. The pay-off is a relief, that we have “got away with it“.

What it means to “Play to Win”

We choose this strategy in order to learn, grow and thrive. Winning in this context does not mean beating others. It means consciously choosing to go as far as we can with all that we have and learning from all that happens. We see opportunity rather than threat in situations, and we decide to venture in to the unknown in the hope that we thrive rather than just survive. We choose to consciously engage with life and commit wholeheartedly, rather than let our early-warning danger signals scare us into avoiding risk.

Making conscious choices presupposes that you know what you want. It also demands that you ask the question – are there real things here to fear, or am I just following the herd? It also requires that you get comfortable with discomfort. The most important thing to understand about this language of Playing NOT to Lose or Playing to Win, is that we avoid value judgments. It is not a case of beating ourselves up if we Play Not to Lose – nor should we imagine that Playing to Win will give us all that we want. In fact, Playing to Win is most likely to confront us with what we fear most.

Playing to Win does not guarantee success. It simply guarantees that we stretch ourselves and come fully alive as human beings. In the process, we have to redefine winning and losing, and redefine what we count understand as success. And we have to learn to identify and cross many imaginary cattle grids.

Some of the ideas in this post are drawn from the work of Wilson, L. & H. (1999) Play to Win! Choosing Growth Over Fear in Work & Life.

How could this inspire your leadership development?

Thanks to Ty for that story and the lessons it has for leaders. Do you ‘play to win’? Are there situations where you could even if you have not dared to yet? What would you do differently if you chose to see opportunity not threat in that situation?